10 September 2009 ~ 25 Comments

The Minstrels on my desk….

There’s an ongoing furor over a Japanese McDonald’s ad campaign featuring a white flunky japanophile who can’t manage to get nihongo (spoken or written) through his thick foreign skull…reinforcing this and other negative stereotypes about white foreigners, as if they needed reinforcing…

Mr. Debito even compared Mr. James to Stepin Fechit.

I don’t know about that.

I thought it was ironic, though. A former American, white, not having much or any racism, bigotry or negative stereotyping aimed at his own race to cite used the experience of African-Americans as a reference. God bless America. Being a minority and the target of racism or xenophobia is something most white people, American or otherwise, will never experience. The same can be said of Japanese.

I feel hesitant to go here.

Fuck it…

Yesterday, while printing out photos of my China trip to show my students I printed out and placed on my desk at work the following photo:

gospe

The Gospe*Rats have been around for years. I’ve seen them on posters and billboards around Shibuya and other places in Tokyo. They were and are very popular. They are very talented. They are very cool.

They are also a Japanese minstrel act.

They seem like really nice guys, though. I feel pretty confident that though they are no doubt aware by now that their black face offends black people (and most any person with a respect for the dignity and humanity of all people) they don’t wear it to be offensive. They simply feel that our offense is not their intent so we need to get over it, or something to that effect.

So, why did I put the photo on my desk? I’m not really sure. I know it’s connected to the McDonald’s thing, though. I had asked my co-workers what they thought about the Nippon All-Stars ad campaign the other day. Most had never heard of it. A couple had but didn’t see anything remotely troubling about it. So, I guess I just wanted to see their reaction to the photo. Would they find it troubling…I guess part of me was hoping they would.

One teacher walked by my desk, glanced at the picture and stopped.

JT: Loco-sensei, what’s that?

Me: It’s a singing group called the gosperats. Do you know them?

JT: I’ve heard of the name but I don’t know their music.

Me: Mostly soul music and doo-wop…American music…African-American music.

JT: Is that right? Why do you have their picture on your desk?

Me: I just thought it was interesting. Don’t you?

JT: I guess so…

And she walked away. Another teacher came by.

JT2: Loco-Sensei, good morning. How are you?

Me: I’m fine, thanks for asking.

JT2: Oh my. What’s that picture on your desk?

Me: It’s a singing group. They call themselves Gosperats. Do you know them?

JT2: Yes! They are great! Do you like them, too?

Me: Not especially.

JT2: I see. Why do you have their picture on your desk?

Me: I just thought they looked interesting. Don’t you?

JT2: Yes. Their makeup is a little strange, but I love their costumes.

A little strange, she said. Just a little?

I rarely get into race stuff with my co-workers, unless they initiate it and won’t let me escape the conversation; with questions that begin with, “do black people…” this and “do black people…” that. But, if it is avoidable I avoid it.

I learned the hard way long before I began working at this school, back in my NOVA days as a matter of fact, that the Japanese (and to be honest, that of some of my Western co-workers) level of ignorance in all matters related to race is at a level where a discourse with them on the subject will invariably, at best, leave me frustrated and / or shocked. As for my fellow English teachers, what is said about Japanese can easily be said about many other countries and even parts of the US: homogeneous, xenophobic, ignorant, insensitive, intolerant, etc…

Not to suggest black people are immune to any of the above. We aren’t. Not by a long shot. I mean, Stepin Fetchit was a black man (as were many black face performers) after all and he didn’t perform at gunpoint (at least I don’t think so) (-:

No, these are indisputably human issues.

I’ve never mentioned The Gospe*rats (nor the other black face groups in Japan) before on my blog because, well, they’re like low-hanging fruit, you know. Like talking about how beautiful Mount Fuji is or how there are no Ninja in Tokyo nowadays, or how crowded the trains are…just too friggin’ obvious.

I mean…in my eyes, it is so blatant. But, I know it isn’t. Not to everyone. Somebody reading this is thinking of rationalizations and/or justifications. Just dying to come to the defense of what I feel to be the essentially indefensible…they’ll say:  Most Japanese don’t have experience with other countries so they have no idea what is offensive or racist. They are a naive people and culture, isolated from the rest of the world etc, etc…blah blah friggin blah.

Of course, they’re right. These Gosperats (and the fans who adore them) are not in the know. The idea to paint their faces black and dress up like black performers  just occurred to them while watching old footage of black pop idols like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, The Platters and others from the 5os…they’ve probably never seen footage or photos of minstrel shows, which date back to slavery days. They just loved the music and loved the style.

They’ve probably never seen or read anything that dealt with the history of the style of entertainment they’ve undertaken…I mean, who does research about the field of endeavor they intend to spend a great deal of time and energy pursuing and presenting to people anyway? Most people just get what they imagine is a good idea and run with it, right? It goes without saying that they probably never saw  Spike Lee’s brilliant take on the black face, called Bamboozled.

They wouldn’t know how painful and negative this kind of thing was, nor how ultimately detrimental to mutual cultural respect this kind of thing currently is.

They are a homogeneous culture and people. There is no history of racism in Japan. I’ve been offered such platitudes over and over and over, by Japanese and foreigners alike, rationalizing and/or justifying the prevailing ignorance.

So, they’re innocent by virtue of ignorance. Ignorance is indeed bliss profitable.

So, what you’re saying is, if they saw a black girl band in New York dressed up in Kimono with Geisha (or yellow) makeup on singing J-pop tunes in broken Japanese they would say,”Oooohhh Kawaiiiii, (wow, cute!)” right? Or 4 Chinese guys in Beijing dressed up like Samurai with ninja masks on singing Enka songs they would say, “Kakkoiii jyan! (mad cool!)” Right? These acts would be viewed by the racially ignorant, innocent and naive Japanese as simply another culture paying homage to their own…not degrading in the slightest. Not even on the wink-wink tip.

I find that hard to believe.

But, it’s all innocent, right? I mean, the whites who did this kind of thing…even some of them were innocent, weren’t they? Just products of their time. If you were a performer, whether child or adult,  black or white, Shirley Temple or Judy Garland, Al Jolson or Stepin Fetchit, this was how the money was being made. This was the kind of entertainment in demand. White people wanted to see black people, but not real black people unless they were acting like fools or doing something amazingly entertaining.

Is there a vestige of minstrel-ism  in Bob Sapp, or Bobby Olugun? Perhaps. I certainly cringe when I see either of them on TV (one of the main reasons I don’t watch it). But I won’t get into that right now.

Today in class, the Japanese teacher asked me, in front of the class, what Japanese TV shows did I watch. She’d caught me off-guard. She hadn’t mentioned in our pre-class meeting that she was going to ask me that. I answered, automatically, almost as if she were asking a ridiculous rhetorical question, “none!” She looked shocked, as did the class. And after hearing the echo of the vehemence in my own voice I immediately donned a smile. Before she could ask me why as a follow up I added, “actually I catch Crayon Shinchan and Dragonball sometimes, but I usually watch American shows like CSI, Heroes and Lost.”

The truth is every time I turn on Japanese television I have to sit through the crucible of a food show (oishii deshou? Sou desu yo ne!) or a talk show (nande ya ne!) or worse, a comedy show. The comedy shows often have someone making fun of foreigners, and there are a few that even get specific and make fun of blacks with the ubiquitous Afro wigs and whatnots. I realize that the same can be said of American TV, especially when I was growing up, but the PC level in the States is so high now even mildly goofing around at another race’s expense is taboo and done at the producer’s considerable risk.

I really don’t want to delve too much into this. Like I said, it’s low hanging fruit, but I do think that Japan had better realize that their claims of naivete and isolation are wearing thin. I mean, god forbid, the Gosperats go on a world tour and encounter an audience that does not see the compliment they must imagine they’re giving by minstrel-ing. If they came to NY doo-wopping in black face…I don’t even want to finish that thought.

I think many here (Japanese as well as some foreigners) would benefit from a film like Bamboozled becoming required viewing.

The following montage from Bamboozled speaks volumes, but maybe for Japan to hear it the volume would need be turned up a notch…you know, due to their isolation and what not.

Loco

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25 Responses to “The Minstrels on my desk….”

  1. Alex 11 September 2009 at 6:42 am Permalink

    Most Japanese comedy shows are completely unfunny, with the exception of Egashira 2:50. He is the greatest.

  2. drvice 11 September 2009 at 8:16 am Permalink

    you are completely right. I often wonder if it is really their own "ignorance" or if they are pretending to be ignorant so they can continue with their heinous actions.

    • Locohama 11 September 2009 at 8:30 pm Permalink

      You know, Doc-san, I wonder too sometimes. But i still give them the benefit of the doubt I seldom receive
      thanks for the shout

  3. Our Man in Abiko 11 September 2009 at 8:21 am Permalink

    Good post. Sorry to blatantly self-promote, but what are your thoughts on this? http://ourmaninabiko.blogspot.com/2009/09/humour-

  4. Zen 11 September 2009 at 1:55 pm Permalink

    Excellent post!

  5. Hotbertaa 11 September 2009 at 3:30 pm Permalink

    you changed my mind on this, without the weight that surrounds this, it could just be a few people who love the iconic images of the motown recordings and are doing their own impression of it. Which in my eyes is a big compliment.

    The last video hit home why its wrong, I've always known since I was small that minstrels were wrong, atleast in the case of the 'golly wog' characters. I remember my parents talking about the golly wogs being removed from the logo of a famous jam company, I listened and then kept eating my toast, it stuck, but I never took the time to learn the history behind it all. Anyway, looking at that video, I can imagine black people at that time and after feeling like they are being made a fool of, and because it's white people portraying it that way they have no way of responding, they just have to sit there and take it. It's wrong. The Japanese performers should be aware of this, not knowing is insensitive.

    If you can why not write a letter to them? it sounds like you think they are ok, but that they should know the history of this and the fact that the people they perhaps admire would feel complimented but also offended by the way they've done this. Nothing may come of it (they've made a career of this, difficult to just give it up), but you may impress something on them.

    On the homogenous point, Japan is a homogenous society. England and America are both multi-cultural, so I can say I understand your points, we share something there. From that we both have a history of racism and discrimination which we've grown up with. BUT, American history is different to English history. Put that context in a country like Japan, where they have little comparison and judging people to that template doesn't work, thats wrong. How many every day American's know the history of Japan? Not many, so why should every day Japanese people know the intricacies of American history? … discrimination is wrong, but Japan isnt America or England, lay off them abit, don't hold your ideals up to them so strongly, let them find their own path to equality.

    Really like your blog and respect your writing. Your giving something new to the Japanese blogosphere, keep it coming.

    • Locohama 11 September 2009 at 8:10 pm Permalink

      Horbertaa-san, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. But, seriously, can you imagine these guys don't know yet? That they don't know what they're dong is even mildly controversial? They've been at it for years and the history of minstrelsy is not obscure in the least bit. Just put the two words black face in a search engine and, in a number of langauges, voila…instant info. But, nevertheless, I will consider writing them a letter. I hadn't before.
      Yeah, I know about England and their Golly wogs. The ironic thing is in the US many African Americans collect this kind of memorabilia. My mother for one. She has advertisments from the early part of the 20th century for various American products that featured Golly wogs, minstrels and various other degrading trademarks. In fact the rice, pancakes and syrup I grew up on, Uncle Ben's Rice and Aunt Jemima, retained these images well into my adulthood. (Now Jemima has a perm instead of that slave rag she used to wear, and Uncle ben's been promoted from kitchen duty to CEO (-:

      Thanks again for the shout

  6. Hotbertaa 11 September 2009 at 3:37 pm Permalink

    Oh, and the James guy from Mcdonalds. There's nothing there. There are plenty of other commercials potraying white men in a positive manner. Only yesterday I was watching Hugh Jackman charming the pants off some Japanese interviewer.

    • Locohama 11 September 2009 at 8:19 pm Permalink

      Hotbertaa-san,

      Yes, I agree. the typical image of white people in japan is one of prestige. Many high fashion magazines and cosmetic ads feature white women. The classic model of business success in Japan is European, or the Japanese man who can look European in a suit. European culture is set high on a pedestal. Ask any Japanese person where they want to travel and most will say to a European country. They are held in a particularly high esteem. Maybe it was utterly shocking to many whites to find themselves lampooned by the euro-philes of Japan.

  7. Hotbertaa 11 September 2009 at 10:18 pm Permalink

    You should write a letter, even if it's short, I think it'll help in some way. I guess they probably do know of the history of it all, but that history and negativity is specific to America, it doesn't look like they are trying to degrade black people, so in the context of Japan I personally think if they stopped it would be the wrong thing to do, better to relate than to put a stop to things, But I'm a white guy from England, all I have to complain about is the mcdonalds guy.

    Speaking of the golly wogs and uncle Ben, times change those negative stereotypes. I wasn't born in the days of the golly wogs running around stealing things, and never gave the original Uncle Ben advertising a thought. Uncle Ben has always been the bright orange box on the shelf, with the friendly looking guy on it, the golly wogs? just some quirky dolls. So I guess time changes things, the negative stereotypes get washed away.

    • Locohama 11 September 2009 at 11:03 pm Permalink

      Actually, time didn't change anything. Activism and protest changed things. Sacrifice and tenacity changed things. Intelligence, creativity and Spirituality changed things. Change occurred not by some natural evolution of thought or by a miraculous burst of recognition of humanity, fraternity and equality on the part of those that would slaughter, enslave and disparage other human beings motivated by either malevolence, a heinous sense of superiority or by the ultimate culprit: profit. But by the concerted effort of a dozen generations of African Americans (and many whites as well) and descendants of the African Diaspora across the globe.

      Power concedes nothing and the white power structure responsible for the atrocities that these symbols we've discussed signify would not have conceded a damn thing. Without their (my ancestors) efforts I suspect black people would probably still be in the out house of history…not in the White House.

      So, when i see Black Face on ignorant Japanese I see people who recognize that power that changed and continues to change the world, are seized by its sanctity, inspired by its artistry, uplifted by it's virility and vivacity and want desperately to be a part of it and pay homage to it, though in a totally unacceptable way, and when i see Golly Wogs (created by those who know better), what I really see is a desperation to retrieve or cling to the GOOD old days when Stepin Fechits stepped and fetched at the behest of those who fancied themselves masters of other human beings by virtue of their race. It's kind of sad actually…but not really.

      The negative stereotypes of which we speak will not wash themselves away, hotbertaa, WE have to wash them away…ne

      So yes like i said the letter you've suggested I write is being taken seriously under consideration (-:

      Thanks again for the shout!

  8. Zach 12 September 2009 at 12:27 am Permalink

    I'm a white guy so really don't have much to argue about with respect to racism but I can't imagine these guys are ignorant of the fact that their costumes are incredibly insensitive. I imagine their motivation is simply that of greed. Having a few friends who were musicians in the past I know having a gimmick can be a big boost to ones earning potential.

    I think for the majority of your article you let them off too easy. I'm sure if you asked them they probably have many egalitarian responses but, in my opninion, they are really just making excuses so they can continue to profit from it.

    Just like in the West as long as a gimmick is profitable it will continue. As soon as it becomes unprofitable it will stop. With as strong as your writing is Loco, you ought to find some progressive journel which might publish your writing in it's op-ed section.

  9. Peter 12 September 2009 at 2:09 am Permalink

    ooch, I stand corrected, somewhat alienated, I'm honestly hurt. Good luck to you.

    My name is Peter.

  10. Chris B 12 September 2009 at 4:29 am Permalink

    Long as no one's bullshit is affecting my wallet,lookin at my lady (for too long), or directly disrespecting ME…I couldn't give a fu__ what other people do. No one will be confusing me with that Mickey D's flunky so whateverz whateverz.

    Nicely written post on a topic some "Japan Sugoi" types tend to ignore. They're too busy beating off to Adult anime and studying for a Kanji test to even notice. That's my "stereotype" of the typical Japan sugoi type anyway.

    Social profiling 😉

    Anyway….another great post!

  11. Aka Gaijin 14 September 2009 at 10:40 pm Permalink

    Someone had told me that white models were more common because Japanese were too shy to pose in revealing clothing for pictures. …and then I watched a video where two ladies make out with dead sea animals on their heads, and my brain explodes.

  12. Joe 15 September 2009 at 3:24 am Permalink

    "Hotbertaa-san,

    Yes, I agree. the typical image of white people in japan is one of prestige. Many high fashion magazines and cosmetic ads feature white women. The classic model of business success in Japan is European, or the Japanese man who can look European in a suit. European culture is set high on a pedestal. Ask any Japanese person where they want to travel and most will say to a European country. They are held in a particularly high esteem. Maybe it was utterly shocking to many whites to find themselves lampooned by the euro-philes of Japan."

    That has quite weirded me out, I know see it as a pretty safe bet that when I say I'm from London there will be plenty of fawning. The modeling offers were pretty shocking as well, even though I know it's just blond hair+blue eyes, not in a million years would I be approached like that in England.

    I don't think ignorance is really an excuse for this black face stuff anymore, someone must have mentioned it to them over the years.

  13. R 17 September 2009 at 10:22 am Permalink

    Hey Loco – I've been a reader/lurker for a while. Love the blog (some of your posts have brought me to tears) but can't really comment sine I'm just a skinny white girl living in Manhattan (who happens to be fluent in Japanese). Despite my language ability I'm pretty sure I'd never want to live in Japan for many reasons, one of the big ones being racism and xenophobia (yes, I know, I can't fathom what it must be like as an African American in Japan.)
    Anyways, just wanted to say one thing I have heard re: race sensitivity in Japan. One of the major reasons why Tezuka Productions is holding back on releasing Tezuka's Kimba the White Lion manga in the US is the fact that the manga portrays Africans in a rather poor, stereotyped manner. They're aware it's an issue. So there's at least one company that knows it's no longer OK to promote stereotyped images (at least on the world stage).
    And this is less important, but I've heard this from fashion industry people – the reason why white-as-a-fish-belly models are used in make-up ads is the fact that a white "canvas" is best to show off the colors of the cosmetics. It's just a technical issue there.
    Sorry for the random comment. I love your blog. And I agree with the others about getting your voice out there. It's important to raise awareness of these major issues in Japan, and who better to do it than someone who can lend an authentic voice to the argument?

  14. Hotbertaa 9 October 2009 at 5:04 pm Permalink

    I saw this in my asia / pacific BBC feed, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8296347….

  15. BobbyJudo 2 September 2011 at 11:32 pm Permalink

    I followed all of the “Black Man Yells at Koreans” stuff here and stayed to look around. Enjoyed this post a lot. I don’t know if it ever came up here in another page, but are you familiar with the “Gaijin Hanzai” magazine that was published 4 years back or so? It became a huge controversy, in part because one of the instances of “hanzai” it listed in the magazine was PDA on the streets between Japanese women and black men. One of the titles included the katakana for “Niga,” and said something like “Hey Nigger, Let Go of that Japanese Girl!”

    When the publishers we’re called out for racism, the response was “Nigger is a word without any history or native connotation in Japan, so when we use it, it’s not fair to treat us as though we use it with all the weight it would carry in a foreign country.” It was exactly the same idea as what you said about “your offense isn’t our intent.”

    And it’s that idea more than anything that I wish Japan would realize is so fundamentally fucked up and needs to be abandoned.

    I can’t count the number of times people here have said they wanted to come to my house for Christmas to see what a real American Christmas is like… and when I explain that I’m Jewish, a handful of times people have hassled me about taking Christmas too seriously. “It’s just for fun, you should totally do it, you’re just being stubborn,” or, “Oh right, I forgot. You hate Christmas.” I’ve wanted to forcefully explain “Just because you don’t know what something means doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning to others.” Ignorance isn’t an excuse.

    Got longer than I expected… I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more posts. Seems like a good forum to commiserate when it’s commiserating time 🙂

    Oh, and if you don’t mind me splitting hairs a little bit, when you say most white people will never be the target of racism or xenophobia… you’re right. But it implies that white people don’t ever face any kind of discrimination, which is only true if you ignore religion and sexual orientation.

    • Locohama 20 September 2011 at 11:10 am Permalink

      I don’t think it implies that at all, Bobby! I think that implication is a stretch at best. Thanks for the shout!

  16. Will 20 September 2011 at 10:22 am Permalink

    “They are a homogeneous culture and people. There is no history of racism in Japan. I’ve been offered such platitudes over and over and over, by Japanese and foreigners alike, rationalizing and/or justifying the prevailing ignorance.”

    I read this as a reflection on the fact that Japan is not one big happy family no matter how many times ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ repeat that it is.

    Bamboozled reminds me of Ivan Hall’s book. The Amazon links has some very interesting comments int the review section, one of which is kind of related to the quote highlighted above. R.Brown, in his review, mentions that “Hall takes his scalpel to Japan’s propaganda system…”

    Drawing attention to the Rationalizing or justifying prevailing ignorance…is surgery really required? Other people might use their artistic wares…kind of like a deep and gifted fellow in Yokohama is doing.

    “And it’s that idea more than anything that I wish Japan would realize is so fundamentally fucked up and needs to be abandoned.”

    Abandoning things that are fundamentally fucked up…maybe that takes a kind of person who “possesses something much more precious — and in Japan studies much rarer — than riches: a reputation for uncompromising integrity” (from Eamonn Fingleton’s review).

    http://www.amazon.com/Bamboozled-America-Intellectual-Implications-Future/dp/076561006X

    Just an idea, Loco… there doesn’t seem to be anything out that there in terms of movies that really grabs what’s going on here. Lost in Translation, though an attempt was sort of…well, lost. Someone, someday, will hopefully be able to pull some talent together and make something that will stick because it’s good, deep, and real.

    In my humble and misguided opinion, your online presence (as well as those who you have inspired) can only contribute to something like this coming together. It might take a decade or so to happen, but when it does, we’ll definitely see some magic.

    Anyway…

    • Locohama 21 September 2011 at 10:46 am Permalink

      Will-san!!! Thanks for this eloquent response, as always! I was thinking about making a post around your response, It’s worthy of such!
      And I would love to be a part of such a project. (movie) Had dreams of doing myself but they’ve been deferred for the time being.
      Thanks again man!!


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